The sweet music of the 1970s

In the hours before going to see Cheap Trick play Coney Island on Friday, I was giving “Surrender” a quick listen as a sort of vaccination against disappointment just in case they didn’t play it (which, I mean, what was I thinking? Of course they were going to play it, it was their closing song) and this got me contemplating my other favorite songs of that era and then, the next thing I knew, I was working on a list of my 20 favorite songs of the 1970s. Which is often how these things go with me. (It could also have turned into a mix CD.) This list is not me trying to weigh in on the “Greatest Songs” of the 70s in some tendentious Rolling-Stone so-it-is-written-by-the-hand-of-the-rock-god kind of thing (hence no “Long and Winding Road”, because not only is that really a 1969 song that snuck in on a technicality, but when you get right down to it, I’d rather listen to most Wings song than that song). It is just a chronicle of personal affection for these songs, which for all I know I may be good and sick of in a few years. All right then.

#20+: Various

Yes, I had more than 20. Way more. Nearly making the cut (in no particular order): “Night Fever”, Bee Gees; “What Is Life”, George Harrison; “In the Street”, Big Star; “Wuthering Heights”, Kate Bush; “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant”, Billy Joel; “September”, Earth, Wind & Fire; “Seven Seas of Rhye”, Queen; “Got to Give It Up”, Marvin Gaye; “Lust for Life”, Iggy Pop; “Draggin’ the Line”, Tommy James and the Shondells; “Sail On, Sailor”, the Beach Boys; “Lady Marmalade”, Labelle; and then there’s Genesis, which mostly didn’t make it because picking one Gabriel-era Genesis song is a weird thing to try to do. I go to Genesis more when I’m in the mood for “that kind of thing in general” rather than any specific song. I guess it would’ve been “Firth of Fifth” if I’d picked one, maybe?

#20: “Velvet Green”, Jethro Tull

I almost said “Thick as a Brick”, but that feels like cheating. That’s a bunch of songs smooshed together into one 40-minute “song” but you’re not fooling anyone, guys. I prefer the “Songs From the Wood”/”Heavy Horses” era anyway, that being one of the rare times where Jethro Tull were choosing an identity that doesn’t make me want to wince too much. I mean, I like their old bluesy stuff too but at that moment they were basically being the Mumford and Sons of their day.

#19: “Trampled Under Foot”, Led Zeppelin

Led Zeppelin is a band I’ve overlistened to, but this song is the one that, for a while, would make me go “Oh right, this song, I forgot about this song!” when I trotted out the “Physical Graffiti” album. Eventually I started remembering I liked it.

#18: “Is It a Star”, Hall and Oates

Todd Rundgren was gonna be on this list somewhere, and here he is. His songs “Hello It’s Me”, “Couldn’t I Just Tell You”, and “I Saw the Light” are all songs that define the sound of the 70s, but (as with Led Zep) I’ve kind of worn all of them out from overlistening. But Todd tends to pour his sound into his production work, and this combination of Rundgren-style progginess plus Hall & Oates hooks is just my cup of tea.

#17: “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day”, Chicago

Oh the perfect horn charts of Chicago, mmmmmm, yes. They actually titled this “Feelin’ Stronger Everyday” but I had to do a Fixed That For You above because that is WRONG WRONG WRONG, “everyday” with no space is an ADJECTIVE as in Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People” (which I was so ready to put on this list but it’s from 1968 whaaaaaat? That dude was ahead of his time), but when it is used in the sense of the adverb “daily” it is a PHRASE. Looks like Chicago should have consulted the … Chicago Manual of Style. *drops mic as waves and waves of applause, cheering, and laughter break out*

#16: “The Thrill of It All”, Roxy Music

Obviously “Country Life” is the best Roxy Music album when I’m playing it instead of 1982’s “Avalon”, which is the best Roxy Music album when I’m playing it instead of “Country Life”. When I’m not playing either one they exist in a quantum state of mutual bestness.

#15: “I’m Not Down”, The Clash

One must have rules when one sits down to make a list like this because, well, because only People Who Make Rules for Themselves are the kind of people who make lists like this. One of my rules was “one song per act”, which makes things difficult when you’ve got the Clash and “London Calling” and one of the greatest track listings ever. I could’ve picked “Hateful”, “Lost in the Supermarket”, “Rudie Can’t Fail”…but this was the one I liked best today.

#14: “Say You Love Me”, Fleetwood Mac

Fleetwood Mac in the 70s is kind of a case study in “Greatest Songs That We’re All Tiredest of Hearing”. “Don’t Stop”? “You Make Loving Fun”? “Rhiannon”? I’m looking for a new radio station to switch to just thinking about them. And this song sorta seems like it should be in the same category, but nope, can’t get enough of it. The only thing I don’t like about it is the use of the word “woo”. “You woo me until the sun comes up”? Is it just me on this? I feel like wooing is what happens before the all-night love session, the start of which is the signifier of having wooed successfully. This has been the first and presumably only installment ever of the Fleetwood Mac Usage Panel Report.

#13: “Rats”, The Kinks

From the album with “Lola” on it, this is a Dave Davies song instead of one of Ray’s. I mean, Ray Davies is legendary — who’s gonna argue with “Waterloo Sunset” — but his music-hall-style larking about gets tiring sometimes (of course it was later in the 70s that it really got intolerable) and anyway that’s not even important, the point is jeez I love the guitar in this song.

#12: “Jet”, Wings

This would probably be a few places higher but the constant string of great hooks in this song is undermined slightly by lyrics that make no sense and were clearly composed in a haze of pot smoke. And wow, I don’t remember ever seeing this NSFW artwork used for the single.

#11: “Mystery Achievement”, The Pretenders

Why hasn’t this song been resurrected? I think about it every time I’m playing a video game and see the array of “secret achievements”. (Also, it’s great, but I guess that’s sort of a given since that’s the whole premise of the list.)

#10: “Surrender”, Cheap Trick

Honestly I had kind of forgotten the existence of this song completely (and could not have told you who performed it if you’d played it for me) until it cropped up in Guitar Hero II and it was like eating a fucking electric madeleine.

#9: “See No Evil”, Television

Television’s two-guitar interplay tickles the same part of my brain as listening to Steve Reich. Runner-up song from this album was “Elevation”, with its outrageously awkward-yet-therefore-perfect overly sudden guitar accent, but “See No Evil” is more fun (if a song with lyrics that I tentatively interpret as “a hyper-intellectual expression of understanding the drive behind wanting something and not caring who gets hurt or what gets damaged in the process of getting it” can be described as “fun”).

#8: “Rosalita”, Bruce Springsteen

I’m not really even a Bruce Springsteen fan — I mean, he’s fine, nothing wrong with him — but cripes, this song. Between the total exhilaration of pre-superstar Bruce shouting “The record company, Rosie, they gave me a big advance!” and Clarence Clemons playing what I’m gonna say is alllllmost the best saxophone on this list, I just, come on.

 #7: “Close to the Edge”, Yes

This doesn’t make any more sense than “Jet”, of course, but to me the lyrics function just fine as the imagistic component of a great composition for electric chamber rock orchestra. Unlike the aforementioned “Thick as a Brick”, this is 20 minutes that’s definitely just one damn song, and a fine one it is.

#6: “Map Ref. 41°N 93°”, Wire

Hardest-to-remember song title ever, from a band of brainy post-punk provocateurs, so how is this so goddamn catchy? Here’s one thing that delights me about this song — after a convoluted, dense verse lyric about how mapmaking affects reality, Colin Newman brightly announces “Chorus!” right before the main hook lands.

#5: “I Zimbra”, Talking Heads

I’m a little surprised with myself that this is Brian Eno’s only appearance on the list (cowriting the music with David Byrne). These lyrics are also nonsense but this being a setting of a Dadaist poem that’s just how it is. This was Talking Heads’ first time doing the New Wave take on Fela-style African funk, done more expansively on “Remain in Light” (eternally duking it out with Kate Bush’s “The Dreaming” for the position of my favorite album ever), but I love how tight and concise this is. I sort of want to arrange this for four ukuleles.

#4: “Baker Street”, Gerry Rafferty

Some primal part of me wants to pick a fight with the rest of me for not putting this at #1. I mean, it has that saxophone, obviously the best saxophone riff of the 70s. Although what the hell, hang on, I just looked at Wikipedia and that riff is basically straight out of this Steve Marcus song (written by Larry Coryell), although I guess the argument-slash-reason nobody sued anybody is that both riffs were based on an old blues riff or something? Aaagh this new information is changing my whole universe … I don’t … HA HA HA HA THE SHOCK HAS WEAKENED FRANCIS, LETTING ME, HIS PRIMAL SELF, ESCAPE! THIS BULLSHIT DOESN’T MATTER! STOLEN RIFF SHMOLEN SHMIFF! “BAKER STREET” IS STILL THE BEST SONG! THE BEST I TELL YOU!!!!

#3: “Beauty and the Beast”, David Bowie

Must…regain…control…gnnnnnn…whew, okay, I’m back. Oh, and wait, I lied, Brian Eno plays synthesizer on this, so he is on the list twice. Anyway, David Bowie … well, obviously, picking just one David Bowie song from the 70s is the worst. The fucking worst! You could pick, oh, I don’t know, “Joe the Lion”, “Breaking Glass”, “Sound and Vision”, “Golden Years”, “Stay”, “Suffragette City”, “Oh! You Pretty Things”, “Queen Bitch”…and I’m being picky. This is the one that most makes me want to thrash around all over the room though.

#2: “Sir Duke”, Stevie Wonder

Meanwhile, although Stevie Wonder’s catalog also contains a megafunkazillion great songs, this is not even a contest. “Sir Duke” is so obviously the best one, and is probably the best song ever written on the topic of “Isn’t music great? I fucking love music.” (Though Prefab Sprout did later try to step it up a notch with an entire album on that subject, “Let’s Change the World With Music”, featuring the thesis-statement song title “I Love Music”.)

#1: “Car on a Hill”, Joni Mitchell

I have no power against this song. If it comes up on shuffle, I always, always play it a second time after it’s finished. Sometimes a third time. It’s got so much going on — clusters of celestial jazz harmonies, easygoing horn-and-woodwind grooves that turn into rhythms so intricate I still get lost in the middle of them, evocative lyrics about emotional entanglement and distance — that there’s more than I feel I can ever actually absorb in the three minutes it takes the song to play. I have been listening to it several times while writing this paragraph and I am about to listen to it again.


#2: BAKER STREET!!!!!!!!
#1: BAKER STREET!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!